I made this time-travel comedy my first movie of 2013 after hearing good things from trusted parties, and despite a distribution strategy that seems half-hearted at best I was glad I made the effort to track it down.
Ultimate sulky girl-crush Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, a young woman at odds with the world who finds herself interning at a magazine for dickheads and doing assorted donkey work for flashy a-hole journalists. One such flashy a-hole (played by Jake Johnson, who initially distracts purely by dint of not being Mark Ruffalo but eventually turns in the best performance of the film in what will hopefully be a breakout role for him) suggests a puff-piece based on a recent classified ad, that states simply: “Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.” After getting the commission, the journo sets off into the sticks with Darius and another intern, the intensely geeky Arnau, to find who placed the ad and start putting a piece together. However, the disaffected Darius begins to warm to the idea of an adventure and, particularly, the enticing prospect of time travel…
This stellar premise is more than enough to sustain it through its slightly shakey initial passages, but the film really takes off once Mark Duplass arrives as Kenneth, the eccentric author of the advert. He’s broadly funny but never decends fully into caricature, and anchors the film with a heart and genuine sweetness that essentially allows everything else to fall into place. Every performance in the film feels acutely well-judged, and I'm sure the agents of every member of the talented cast will be ringing off the hook in 2013.
The excellent script twists and turns in ways that are never predictable but always logical, largely because the characters feel almost incongruously human and well-drawn for a genre film. What’s more, the underpinning elements of sci-fi also feel just as solid, with an approach to both the mechanics and moral and ethical implications of time travel that feels in many ways much more satisfying that the recent and more obviously genre-savvy LOOPER.
I’ve seen the film labeled with the tag of mumblecore, but other than the low-budget (which never feels like it is constricting the film’s ambitions) and presence of mumblecore Elvis Duplass it didn’t really feel like part of that movement to me: the films I was reminded of throughout were more classic Amblin movies like ET, GREMLINS (the big emotional centerpiece where Aubrey Plaza reveals why she would like to go back in time is very reminiscent of Phoebe Cates’s unforgettable ‘Santa Claus’ speech) and – yes – BACK TO THE FUTURE. You can also see why director Colin Trevorrow has been linked with the upcoming STAR WARS: EPISODE VII, and not just because of the litany of overt Star Wars references there are here: he demonstrates a real knack of juggling different tones while keeping up the spirit and pace of a classic adventure.
It’s a lovely, crowd-pleasing warm hug of a film, and hopefully it will live a life on DVD and Blu-ray for many years to come.
Incidentally – my pals over at Den of Geek showed SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED as a double-feature with GRABBERS, another brilliant slice of low-budget genre cinema that was all but buried by cautious distributors. It’s a double bill I’d highly recommend replicating yourself at home (once they’re both out on DVD, of course) as they’ve got everything: laughs, thrills, romance, adventure – that, coupled with the smug satisfaction that you’re supporting a couple of independent films, will result in a big fat shot of endorphins more than enough to get you through the cold bleak January evenings with a smile on your face.